On Tuesday night, the Oslo Writers' League launched its second annual anthology at Oslo's Litteraturhuset. I'm proud to announce that the event--which included a panel discussion, readings, and an art auction--raised almost 10,000 NOK for Utdanningshjelpen; this will provide more than three full years of education to scholarship recipients. All in all, a fun, successful evening!

Tammy Dobson Photography came away with some excellent photos...

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Crammed as many OWLs on stage as possible. We're a colorful bunch! 

You can pick up a copy of All the Ways Home on Amazon in the U.S., or the U.K., as well as The Book Depository. All profits go to Utdanningshjelpen. Don't forget to leave a comment and let me know how much you enjoyed the book!

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Last weekend, the road rose up to meet me! My flash fiction story "Roots" received the Irrgrønn Flash Fiction Award, and my win was announced at the Irrgrønn Festival of Contemporary Irish Literature.

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Even on an ordinary day, there's nothing I like better than hanging around Oslo's Litteraturhuset. In past years, I've watched many wonderful authors read and speak there. From Ali Smith to Anna Funder to Jennifer Egan to John Irving. But I can confirm that it's even cooler to be the person standing on stage reading to the crowd.

Click here to read the full text (that's 496 words) of "Roots".

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While the Opera House was drowning in the agitated mania of Oslo's teenage Justin Bieber fans last Wednesday night, a few dozen literature lovers gathered in the basement of Oslo's Litteraturhuset to see someone else. David Vann, author of Legend of a Suicide and Caribou Island, was visiting to talk about the latter book, most recently translated into Norwegian. 

Turning the last page of Caribou Island the week before, I'd felt utterly flattened, almost distraught. The story follows the crumbling of a thirty-year marriage. Gary and Irene are building a cabin on an island in Alaska; as they struggle through that process, they learn how far apart they've grown and how much they have left to lose. It is one of the saddest, least hopeful books I've ever read. That the novel elicited such a strong reaction speaks to the high quality of the writing, but ultimately, I was feeling dark and wary as I took my seat on Wednesday. I had no idea what to expect.

So, it was a pleasant surprise when Vann took the floor and opened with his Bieber impersonation for the audience.

He stepped away from the chair and microphone set up for the interview and took a pop artist's stance, as though on stage: one foot in front of the other, torso leaned forward. He then proceeded to rock out. 

"Dead on, right?" he asked. The audience laughed. Vann reddened and returned to his seat. 

Norwegian journalist Martin Grüner Larsen led the interview and first brought up Legend of a Suicide.

"Why did you choose to write it as a novel? Why not a memoir?" Larsen asked.

Legend of a Suicide, winner of the 2007 Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction, is the fractured tale of a man's suicide as told several different ways. Every version is slightly different, a variety of vantage points and writing styles. But the suicide in the story was real. Vann's father took his own life in 1980; that heartbreak for Vann was the jumping off point for what would eventually be a successful literary debut. Vann doesn't hide this fact from his readers; the American edition includes a note confirming it on the inside cover.

"There's no true story in my family," Vann explained. When asked, every family member had something different to say or add about his father's death. For Vann, the only answer was to give his unconscious a free reign in the writing.

"To make the ugly and meaningless beautiful and meaningful is what the unconscious wants," he said. "My family doesn't understand why the beautiful has to be monstrous; [but Legend of a Suicide] is some monstrous version of the true story."

Vann began writing Legend of a Suicide when he was still a student in a writing program. The manuscript was rejected by several publishers. Ultimately, a discouraged Vann gave up and pursued a career as a sailing captain and a boat builder. 

"My brain wasn't old enough to do a novel," he said. Only several years later did he return to his original project and find success.

Larsen asked whether writing Legend of a Suicide was something akin to therapy.

Vann nodded. "Yes, I mean, I feel better!"

Laughter.

"But the difference between writing and therapy is that writing has an aesthetic goal... transformation, trying to find something beautiful," he said. Then he continued, "Therapy isn't beautiful."

Laughter.

Thus, the tone of the evening was set. Vann couldn't help vying for the laugh at every turn. He giggled through many of his own quips, gesticulating with frantic hands, rolling his eyes around in his head.
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American author Jennifer Egan drew a sellout crowd to Oslo's Litteraturhuset on Wednesday night. Organizers had to set out extra rows of chairs on the floor of the main theater to accommodate Egan's fans. The room was warm, thick with anticipation and the rumble of low voices. My friend, Zoë, and I edged in toward two empty seats.

"Note to self," I whispered to her. "Win a Pulitzer."

And Zoë, who never fails to keep things real, whispered back, "Note to self: Get published first."

I took the last sip of my pinot noir as we settled in. We were only two of what I'm sure were many aspiring authors in the room, including a few of our fellow members from the Oslo International Writers Group. But that night, all of us had come primarily as readers, fans of Egan's work. 

She'd arrived in Oslo to promote and discuss A Visit from the Goon Squad, the novel which earned her the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. The book is as impossible to describe succinctly as it is to spoil for those who have not yet read it. Written as a series of nonlinear chapters which each read as a standalone story starring a different protagonist, Goon Squad is a fresh take on the art of the novel, one influenced by both the 19th century serialized fiction of Dickens and the HBO mob hit The Sopranos.  It is organized in two "sides," A and B, like a record or a cassette tape, and every chapter, like a song, is complete in itself, but also builds to create a full album.

As Litteraturhuset's Head of Programming, Silje Riise Naess, said in her introduction, "It's about time Jennifer Egan was published here in Norway!"

Norwegian author Linn Ullmann led the interview, and the first thing she asked Egan about was that crazy title, A Visit from the Goon Squad, which has given Scandinavian publishers a bit of trouble. Norwegian publishers ultimately decided on the title En bølle på døra, which translates to something like A Bully at Your Door.

"I came up with the title years before I started the book," Egan said. "For a long time, whenever I had a new idea, I wondered, Will this book be Goon Squad? And it finally was."

"What exactly is a goon?" Ullman asked. "One of your characters says, Time is a goon. What does he mean?"

"A goon is a comic thing. Not a scary term, a silly term," she said. "It's like a very cartoonish thug. And Time is a goon is a completely made-up saying, but [it means] that time wins. The Grim Reaper, but in a lighter sense."

Everything about Egan was confident. She's been through dozens and dozens of interviews just like this one. I watched her shake back her hair, cut short, silky in the stage lights, the same silver-brown of a Yorkshire terrier's coat. I could picture her, a New York City adoptee (born in Chicago and raised in San Francisco), walking around Brooklyn with her ear-buds in, listening to Elvis Costello. Confident. Creative. Nothing Egan said in her interview was perfunctory or unthinking. Hundreds of people had gathered in Oslo just as similar crowds had in interviews across the U.S., everyone eager to catch a glimpse of the mind that had conceived a book this different, this wacky... a work Time Magazine described as an "expert fillet" of an epic novel.
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On a gray Wednesday evening in April, I walked to Oslo's Litteraturhuset under the red blossom of my umbrella. I was on my way to see Australian author Anna Funder talk about her debut novel, All That I Am. Cars splashed murky water from the gutters up onto the sidewalk. I worried that my heart was about to break.

As a hopeful, student author, I've been told a thousand times that good writing is always genuine. That I must write from a place of sincerity and passion. Time and again, my mentors and professors have said to me, Write the story you must. Like any other helpful adage, however, once this truth has been used as a device to stimulate creativity a few dozen times, it loses its shine, its magic, its ability to impel. It becomes personal affirmation. Still true, but benign. 

Then last winter, I heard a teacher say something new. 

Bill Lychack, author of The Architect of Flowers, spoke to my class about what a writer's product is and where it comes from. Snow dusted the bare trees outside our classroom in Cambridge. When it came to his own process, Lychack said, "What I must do is all that concerns me." But then he went on...

Write the thing that would break your heart if someone else wrote it first.
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I was fortunate to be able to see Ali Smith interviewed at Oslo's Litteraturhuset earlier this month. I've been a fan of Smith's work since I happened to pick up a well-thumbed copy of The Whole Story and Other Stories at a used bookstore in Davis, California several years ago. Smith's work has twice been short-listed for the Orange Prize and the Man Booker Prize. When I heard she was coming to Oslo to promote There But For The, her latest novel and eighth Norwegian-translation, I couldn't wait to see her.

"The next time you have a whiskey, drink to my dad."

At this the audience broke out in applause. Smith nodded and raised a pretend glass in salute to the crowd. The gesture summed up the mood of the evening, more a conversation in a pub with a mentor than a lecture given by an award winning author. 

Oslo's Litteraturhuset lecture hall was full of avid Smith fans on the evening of 11 April, eager to hear about the famed Scottish author's writing process and philosophy. After two introductions, one in English and one in Norwegian, Smith took her place onstage.

She sat in one of two chairs, each angled slightly toward the other, and in doing so, was forced to duck under an encroaching microphone stand. Her movement, while not quite graceful, was confident. She wore cuffed jeans and heavy brown boots, and her dark hair swung around her face in a plain, perfunctory bob. Over the course of her interview, conducted as a conversation with book critic Margunn Vikingstad, Smith displayed a delicate vigor. Her voice was both soft and tough as it waxed and wound around words, and her Scottish accent made every declaration sound both optimistic and final, as though no one could or would want to argue.

"But is the best word."

"We forget the formative moments of life until much later, but then they always have revolved around something kind."

"Clichés are a dead language, but they're wonderful. We need them. They offer a shared truth... an 'Oh good, that's happened to you, too.'"

In her chair, Smith sat with scrunched shoulders and one foot tucked up underneath herself. Her eyes sparkled as she recounted her early days as a writer, when the kindnesses of people like one of her first Cambridge landlords ("Now there was a versatile man. He was a plumber who also made hats!") nurtured her. He didn't mind whether she couldn't pay the rent. He'd take what she could pay, drink a cup of tea with her and her roommates, and then leave with thanks.
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About this Archive

This page is a archive of recent entries in the Litteraturhuset Series (House of Literature) category.

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